Definition of Coaching: Understanding What Coaching is and What it is Not
by Lucia Baldelli
Despite the popularity of professional coaching and the high demand of coaching services for leaders, teams and organisations, I still bump into clients that have misunderstood what coaching is and expect something completely different. At times we can be asked to give a solution or advice, sometimes we can be invited to take responsibility for an organisational change, other times we might be asked for feedback about the people we coach… Have you ever experienced any of this? The aim of this article is to bring some clarity to what coaching is and isn’t, and how it is different from other service professions. We will unpack its definition and dive deeper to really understand what we are supposed to do or not do in a coaching relationship. We will also understand how it applies to coaching individual clients (life coaching, executive and leadership coaching) and systems (team and organisational coaching).
Why is it Important to Define What Is Coaching and What Isn’t?
I feel that bringing clarity to what coaching is, to our role as coaches, and making it part of our practice with a new client is essential to start in partnership. There are different ways to bring value to our clients and they might need different interventions at different times, so starting with clarity about who you are and what you do or not do means avoiding confusion or unmet expectations later during the relationships. For this reason, I believe it is equally important to clarify what coaching isn’t.
In an individual coaching relationship – e.g. if you are coaching a leader or an executive – this means setting clear expectations about who will have to find the answers, who will have to change, who is going to do the work in the room and outside of the room, who will be accountable for it. Failing in doing so might lead your client to lean on you as the expert, the one with the right answers, the one that will save them and solve the problem for them.
In an enterprise coaching relationship – e.g. if you are working as an internal or external team coach for an organisation – this is also about establishing if you are engaged to be a mentor, a facilitator, a teacher, a manager, a consultant. And, even within the boundaries of a specific supporting role, it is about clarifying how you live that role and how you provide value to your teams and the wider organisation. Failing in doing so might lead you to be in the wrong stance and your teams might push back when that happens: e.g. you advise when they need to co-create, you challenge when they do not have the answer, you teach when they already have the skills.
What if we do not bring this clarity from the start of the engagement? We are not starting with the right foot! By failing to explain what coaching is and isn’t to our clients we are creating the conditions for misunderstandings, disappointment, push backs and we are not being transparent on our approach and philosophy of coaching.
What Coaching Is
What is coaching then? Coaching is indeed a relationship between a coach and a (team or individual) client. The relationship goal is defined by the client. The coach does not solve the client’s problem for them or tell them what to do but supports and challenges the client to find the answers within themselves as well as understand how they need to change to be successful. The coach uses skills, tools and techniques to facilitate the client’s thinking, discovery and forward movement in a way that leaves choice and full accountability to the client both in the room and outside of the room. The coach’s goal is to enable the client’s growth in a way that is sustainable after the coaching relationship comes to an end.
There are different types of coaching and most of them have become buzz words: life coaching, executive coaching, leadership coaching, team coaching, enterprise or organisational coaching, business coaching, performance coaching, etc. They still describe a relationship but the focus of the coaching is different for each specialisation.
Definition of Coaching by ICF
The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines professional coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.”
Other definitions of Coaching
Other coaching bodies have defined coaching.
- The Association for Coaching defines it as “a facilitated, dialogic and reflective learning process that aims to grow the individuals (or teams) awareness, responsibility and choice (thinking and behavioural). ”
- Here is the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) definition of coaching and mentoring. “It is a professionally guided process that inspires clients to maximise their personal and professional potential. It is a structured, purposeful and transformational process, helping clients to see and test alternative ways for improvement of competence, decision making and enhancement of quality of life. Coach and Mentor and client work together in a partnering relationship on strictly confidential terms. In this relationship, clients are experts on the content & decision making level; the coach & mentor is an expert in professionally guiding the process.”
- The Institute for Life Coach Training defines it as “a professional relationship that helps people produce extraordinary results in their lives, careers, businesses or organizations, helping them to bridge the gap between where they are now and where they want to be. Coaches partner with their clients to design the life they want, bring out their clients’ own brilliance and resources so that they can achieve excellence and create purposeful, extraordinary lives. By creating clarity, coaching moves the client into action, accelerating their progress by providing greater focus and awareness of all the possibilities which exist to create fulfilling lives.”
Despite several interpretations, the ICF’s definition of coaching seems to be the most recognised one and what I find essential about it is that it emphasises the word partnership, a distinctive element of the coaching relationship. Coaching is about co-creating whatever happens in the session, in a way that maximises value for our clients, not simply following a pre-planned arc of a coaching conversation. Whatever we do is in service of who is in the room and we shut down our ego, assumptions, opinions, experience, memories as much as we can to be fully present and support the client’s thinking and forward movement, trusting that a lot of work and progress will happen outside of the room.
If you want to know more about the concept of partnership in coaching, we explored it in our previous article and described how we know if there is partnership.
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What Skills Does Coaching Require?
In any case, the coach leverages skills like:
- active listening: the art of staying in tune with the speaker to fully understand what is happening at multiple levels (you can read more about levels of listening in our previous article)
- emotional intelligence: the ability to recognise, understand and be in control of our own emotional reactions so that we can notice and acknowledge the emotions that emerge for our clients in the room (read more in our article on the role of emotional intelligence in coaching)
- powerful questions formulated to provoke significant positive impact on the quality and direction of the other person’s thinking and new awareness: they are generally open-ended, future focused, non judgemental, short and clear
- observations about patterns of behaviour, limiting beliefs, assumptions, use of language, shifts of energy and emotions with the aim of increasing awareness in our client
- accountability: we hold our clients accountable for the actions or thinking they designed for themselves
- and the list is not exhaustive…
Developing these skills and acquiring the competencies to conduct effective individual coaching conversations is the heart and focus of our ICF accredited class From Zero to Coach.
In a systemic (team) coaching context this becomes much more complex: active listening happens at a global level, there are multiple perspectives that have to be heard, relationships bonds within and outside of the team that influence dynamics. You could say that there are more perspectives than bodies in the room. In order to be effective systems coaches we need to develop these skills and competencies to the next level. This is the essence and focus of our class From Coach to Systems Coach.
What Are the Goals of Coaching?
To understand fully what coaching is, it is crucial to clarify what are its goals. In a famous video about why we need a coach, Bill Gates said “everyone needs a coach” and Eric Schmidt added that every top performer has a coach, “somebody who can watch what they are doing and say ‘is that what you really meant?’… give them perspectives. The one thing that people are really never good at is seeing themselves as others see them.” A coach holds a mirror on what you do not see about yourself and therefore enables self-discovery, new awareness that will lead to transformation in the client’s life.
Here are a few challenges that coaching can help you overcome.
- Coaching helps you get unstuck and move forward when you see no way out.
- Coaching allows you to achieve important objectives.
- Coaching can improve results and performance in a sustainable way.
- Coaching is a way to develop your own best practices, resources or healthy habits.
- Coaching helps you achieve growth, balance and fulfilment.
- Coaching can show you the way to develop professionally.
- Coaching helps you manage stress or other emotions that seem hard to control.
- Coaching helps you face challenges you never thought you could.
- Coaching brings the focus and clarity you need.
- Coaching gives you direction when you have to make a difficult decision.
- Coaching is a discovery of who you are and how to change to get closer to who you want to be.
- Coaching is a mirror that shows you what is hindering your success.
- Coaching uncovers patterns of thinking or behaviour that are working against your goals.
What Coaching Isn’t
Due to several misconceptions about coaching I encountered in many years of coaching practice, besides explaining what coaching is, it is worth clarifying what coaching isn’t, comparing it to other service professions that are often confused with it.
ICF compares coaching vs other service professions and defines them to avoid misunderstanding and confusion. It also touches on how the coach should behave when a different professional is needed (see ICF Code of Ethics) but what are these professions and how are they different from coaching?
Coaching is Not Consulting
Here is what ICF says about consulting.
“Individuals or organizations retain consultants for their expertise. While consulting approaches vary widely, the assumption is the consultant will diagnose problems and prescribe and, sometimes, implement solutions. With coaching, the assumption is that individuals or teams are capable of generating their own solutions, with the coach supplying supportive, discovery-based approaches and frameworks.”
The fundamental difference is believing that clients are experts in their own context and are best placed to create solutions that will work for them. Unlike a consultant, a coach does not diagnose and does not need to go into the details of the problem.
A coach needs to sit with the person to help them understand their relationship to the problem, how they are experiencing it, what makes it a challenge for them, what beliefs or patterns of behaviour or thinking are preventing the client’s success so that they can work together to overcome it.
Coaching is Not Mentoring
Here is what ICF says about mentoring.
“A mentor is an expert who provides wisdom and guidance based on his or her own experience. Mentoring may include advising, counseling and coaching. The coaching process does not include advising or counseling, and focuses instead on individuals or groups setting and reaching their own objectives.”
Mentoring is a long term relationship aimed at the mentee’s growth. The mentor contributes to the relationship by bringing their expertise lightly, so that the mentee can learn and benefit from it. In any case, the mentee is accountable for choosing and implementing the solution that seems more appropriate to them.
Coaching is Therapy or Counselling
Here is what ICF says about the difference between therapy and coaching.
“Therapy deals with healing pain, dysfunction and conflict within an individual or in relationships. The focus is often on resolving difficulties arising from the past that hamper an individual’s emotional functioning in the present, improving overall psychological functioning, and dealing with the present in more emotionally healthy ways. Coaching, on the other hand, supports personal and professional growth based on self-initiated change in pursuit of specific actionable outcomes. Coaching is future-focused, and the coaching relationship emphasizes action, accountability and follow-through.”
As coaches we are not qualified to heal traumas and psychological issues. Unlike therapists, our exploration is mostly future focused, action oriented with the aim of achieving specific personal or business goals.
Coaching is Not Training or Teaching
Here is what ICF says about the difference between training and coaching.
“Training programs are based on objectives set out by the trainer or instructor. Though objectives are clarified in the coaching process, they are set by the individual or team being coached, with guidance provided by the coach. Training also assumes a linear learning path that coincides with an established curriculum. Coaching is less linear, without a set curriculum.”
Unlike a trainer or teacher, a coach does not contribute with content and knowledge to the relationship, be it a session of group or individual coaching (you can find out about the differences in this blog article). The coaching goals are not about something that the coach will teach to the client. Again, we are assuming that our clients are experts in their own context and have everything they need to figure out how to move forward.
Coaching is Not Progressive Discipline
In organisational contexts, progressive discipline is the process of using measures when an employee fails to solve a problem after being given a reasonable opportunity to do so. Progressive discipline falls unders the domain of Human Resources.
Very often employees are “sent” for coaching when they are experiencing challenges in achieving specific goals or have low performance. What I have seen when that happens is that the individual client (employee) might perceive this as a “punishment” and see the coach as one of the actors involved in progressive discipline. This lowers trust in the coach and lack of confidence that the coaching process will bring value.
A few ways to move to a more productive place in this scenario are to affirm the following with your client:
- coaching conversations are confidential
- you are not there to judge but to support
- you will never report on the client performance
- you will not advise or dictate what the client should do
- you will help your client to see how he needs to be or act differently to succeed.
Coaching is not Management
As described in this article on coaching vs managing, “the goal of managing is to make sure employees meet their objectives within an agreed time frame. The focus is on the completion of tasks and achieving results.” Generally speaking, a manager is responsible for delivering certain results and delegates / supervises the work of his direct reports to make sure the team delivers with high quality and on target.
Effective leaders can do this by trusting their direct reports, contributing to their professional and personal development and creating the conditions that allow them to work at their best. This requires a coaching mindset and coaching skills but it is very different from coaching.
A coach does not have any stake in the work that the client is delivering, therefore his work is completely focused on the development of the individual rather than achieving specific results. A coach is not involved in assigning or directing work and does not evaluate the employee’s performance. A coach uniquely focuses on growing individuals into better versions of themselves.
What Are the Most Important Steps in Coaching?
A coaching relationship is pretty unique – because clients are unique – but there are a few things that you can expect that would be in common:
- In a discovery call your coach sets expectations and explain roles and responsibilities in the coaching process, talk about confidentiality and how the coach will deal with client data
- The start of the relationship is about understanding the client’s needs, challenges, emotions and goals.
- Throughout the process the coach and the client work together to:
- breakdown the big relationship goal into smaller chunks that will be discussed and resolved in each session; the client will bring a topic for coaching in each session
- understanding what makes it a challenge for the client and the client relationship to it
- uncovering hidden strengths that the client can leverage
- uncovering limiting beliefs and thinking and/or behavioural patterns that undermine the client’s success
- building self-confidence
- designing the path forward.
- At the end of the relationship the coach and the client celebrate learning and discuss how the client will take that even forward after the relationship ends.
Wondering how to go even deeper? We welcome you to join our next cohort of students!
- What is coaching according to ICF?
- What is coaching according to the Association for Coaching?
- What is coaching according to the European Mentoring and Coaching Council(EMCC)?
- What is coaching according to the Institute for Life Coach Training?
- Coaching Outside the Box article: What does partnership mean in Coaching?
- ICF on How is coaching different from other service professions?
- ICF Code of Ethics
- ICF on Referring a client to therapy
- Coaching vs managing
- Everyone needs a coach, video with Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt.
- The 3 Levels of Listening by Karen Bruns
- Reflective Inquiry in Coaching by Karen Bruns
- The Arc of a Coaching Conversation: Fundamental Steps for a Successful Session by Chester Jackson
- Emotional Intelligence and Coaching: the importance for effective practice by Raquel Silva
- Direct Communication in Coaching: An Essential Core Competency by Karen Bruns